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NORTHBOROUGH

Wind-turbine plan gaining momentum

By Julia Rappaport
Globe Correspondent / January 8, 2009
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Northborough officials have something new planned for the town.

Selectmen are moving ahead on a path to determine whether a 240-foot wind turbine could generate enough electricity to justify the cost to build it. Supporters say it could greatly reduce the town's utility bill, and perhaps produce some revenue, while also reducing the consumption of imported oil.

"This could cut taxes, eliminate the electric bill of the regional high school, and decrease our dependence on the Middle East," said town resident Bob Giles, a retired engineer who has spearheaded support for the proposal. He said the turbine, once up and running, could save the town up to $600,000 annually.

Nearly two years ago, after reading about a Vermont ski resort's success with a power-generating turbine, Giles asked selectmen to study whether Northborough could also benefit from wind power.

He then went to work to explore the idea, and last week selectmen created a seven-member Wind Committee to investigate the feasibility of setting up a turbine on town-owned property.

Last month, the board asked the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust to make preliminary visits to six potential turbine sites: Algonquin Regional High School, two farm properties on Ball Hill, conservation land on Mount Pisgah, an area off Castle Road, and the Northborough Senior Center's 7-acre lot.

As Giles and selectmen move ahead with their plans, they are looking to Hull for guidance. Since 2001, the seaside community has set up two wind turbines that provide about 11 percent of Hull's electricity, according to Town Manager Philip Lemnios, and is looking to build four more turbines offshore, which could potentially meet 100 percent of the town's electricity needs.

Meanwhile, President-elect Barack Obama has made it clear that a portion of his proposed economic stimulus package will go to alternative energy projects.

In Northborough, Giles recommended the six sites after consulting a wind map prepared by the energy trust, a statewide group based in Westborough that provides financial and technical assistance to communities hoping to harness alternative energy sources.

The map, posted on the town's website (www.town.northborough.ma.us) as part of a presentation last month by Giles, is color-coded - the darker the shade, the more potential for wind power. The map shows four of the proposed sites as dark green, capable of harnessing winds of roughly 15 miles per hour at a height of 230 feet, a speed ideal for turbines, explained Giles.

"Turns out, Northborough has a few dark green areas," he said.

The trust's site visits are the first steps in a process that could take years.

After touring the sites, representatives of the trust would offer an analysis on whether the town should pursue the project. The next step would be a yearlong feasibility study, with a temporary turbine set up to measure wind potential. Although the study's $6,000 cost would be covered by private fund-raising, Giles said, it would require approval by Town Meeting.

If the test shows promise, the town could then put the project out to bid.

According to Giles, constructing the wind turbine could cost $2.5 million, but it could pay for itself within five to seven years. Giles said a 1.8 megawatt turbine could produce enough energy to eliminate the entire electrical bill for Algonquin Regional, a savings of some $400,000 a year. And, because the town can sell any unused energy back to the power company, the turbine could actually bring income to Northborough, he said.

Northborough selectmen are supportive of the project. "I don't think there's a bad time to search for alternative energy," said the board's chairwoman, Dawn Rand. Community groups have also voiced their approval.

"I've given a talk to all the department heads, to the fire chief, the police chief, explaining what the capability of the turbine is and how we could make money from it. They all bought into it," Giles said.

Yet community backing and good intentions may not be enough to power the project.

"Wind technologies in Massachusetts just do not work everywhere," said Philip Giudice, commissioner of the state's Department of Energy Resources. He said the best sites are elevated and exposed to the elements. Although Northborough is taking all the necessary preparations, Giudice said, it is impossible to know whether a turbine would be successful in town without additional studies.

Just last week, Staples Inc. officials shelved plans to install a turbine at the company's headquarters off Route 9 in Framingham, after a $35,000 feasibility study found less-than-optimal winds at the site.

Other obstacles could complicate the project. Approval by Town Meeting voters would be required at several points, and funding may be hard to come by.

"At this point in time, we'll be optimistic that this will work but, really, we have no way of knowing," said Rand.

"Yes, we are moving ahead with all of our current plans, but we will be modifying things as we need to," said Giudice, who is encouraging Northborough's project despite the effort it will require. "Getting as much green energy as we can is going to make a lot of sense looking into the future."

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